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The River Erdman

Jean Erdman performing her piece “Ophelia” in 1972. Image by the White Barn Theater.

Jean Marion Erdman (Feb. 20, 1916 – May 4, 2020) was a dancer and avant-garde theatrical artist who was married to Joseph Campbell for 49 years until his death in 1987. In celebration of Erdman’s birthday, we can examine the unfolding and fulfillment of her artistic career. 

Throughout her life, Erdman accessed the collective unconscious and manifested its attitudes, memories, and impulses into stunning new images for the 20th century stage. Her most complex and memorable work was Coach of the Six Insides (1962), an interpretation of James Joyce’s literary masterpiece, Finnegans Wake. While Campbell, with Henry Morton Robinson, opened the treasures of Finnegans Wake for readers with A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake, Erdman daringly translated it into a production of total theatre. She returned art to art through a presentation of dramatic action, dance, mime, and multi-layers of Joycean meaning illuminated by the capacities of myth. The main character, danced by Erdman, was Anna Livia Plurabelle. The character transmuted into many forms, most commonly Ireland’s River Liffey, which represented the female psyche and archetypal woman, and we can compare Erdman’s life to this river.

The Genesis of Jean Erdman began in the Garden of Eden on the Island of Oahu, Territory of Hawaii. She was a fifth generation islander. Erdman had a charming personality and retained the distinct family values of humility, honesty, and full commitment to ethical ideals. A sense of adventure was surely in Erdman’s blood, and her passion for the theatrical arts began with her family.

A natural spring was significant to Hawaiian mythology and Honolulu’s Punahou School, which Erdman attended as a child. At the school, Erdman received dance instruction in the free and natural modern style of Isadora Duncan. Erdman also studied American tap and centuries-old Japanese odori. At ten, she witnessed a performance of the great classical Chinese dan actor Mei Lan Fang. Jean stated, “I know that experience actually shaped my creative imagination.”(Jean Erdman Papers, New York Public Library, 5:6)

Erdman learned ancient sacred hula, its rituals, and chanted poetic texts (mele). She attended to the prohibitions (kapu) delineated for performers because, it is believed, performers may be possessed by Pele, god spirit and hula patroness. Erdman had association with one of Hawaii’s most noted authorities of ancestral knowledge (kapuna), Mary Kawena Pūku’i. At age 18, Erdman and Pūku’i made two sound recordings of ancient mele of the ‘āla’apapa domain, thereby preserving repertoire of the Kamehameha dynasty. (Stillman, A. K.  Sacred Hula: The Historical Hula ‘Āla’apapa, 63, 70)

From the Punahou bubbling spring, Erdman carried her wisdom and dance expressions to foreign realms. She “took herself” to a New England prep school, where she encountered a puritanical attitude toward the hula. Upon graduation in 1934, Erdman sought the open-minded and welcoming climate of Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, NY. Erdman “followed her bliss” by studying theatre, dance, religions, and aesthetics. She also encountered mighty forces that further molded the “river course” of her curiosities. Young Erdman was receptive to advice offered by respected authorities, especially tutor and professor Joseph Campbell and dance pioneer Martha Graham. Erdman flowed through life in a way that mimicked the Liffey traveling between the guardian Wicklow Mountains. 

Erdman left college to tour the world with her parents in 1937-38. At each port, Erdman beheld the authentic dances, which made an indelible impression upon the young artist’s sensibilities. Erdman’s time away from New York proved difficult for Campbell. The lovely Jean charmed him in a way he had not expected. The arrangement of the two lives was soon to be intertwined in a plan that only the universe could contrive. 

Upon her return she married Joseph Campbell, on May 5, 1938. She subsequently edited drafts of his work, and he would often carry her suitcases on performance tours. She was soon dancing professionally with Graham’s group. Graham cast Erdman in roles that utilized Erdman’s unique vocal, acting, and dancing abilities, which were necessary for parts in Every Soul is a Circus (1939) and the 1941 masterpiece Letter to the World

During summers, Erdman studied with modern dance pioneers at the Bennington College School of the Dance in Vermont. There she experienced the strengths and contradictions of various dance training methods. Although Graham strictly stressed contraction and release of the muscles, Erdman also appreciated Hanya Holm’s focus on inner motivation and Doris Humphrey’s “fall and rise” sequences. This was a period of discernment. Instead of a technique invented to honor a personality, Erdman desired to select movements that corresponded to choreographic intent and stirred the senses of the viewer.

During the late 1940s, Erdman joined the New Dance Group, a collective dedicated to social justice. Ultimately, Erdman broke away from both Graham and the New Dance Group with a commitment to create her own work. Erdman’s calling seemed to embrace the prophetic words of poet William Blake: “I must create a system, or be enslav’d by another man’s. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.” (Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion)

The River Liffey is iconic to Dublin and likewise Erdman was central to the development of the American modern dance movement. Beginning with her earliest dances, the “River Erdman” carried travelers into streams of pervasive primordial connections, inspirations, and explorations of feminine principles presented with contemporary aesthetic sensibilities, as shown in The Transformations of Medusa (1942), Daughters of the Lonesome Isle (1945), Passage (1946), Hamadryad (1948), and Changing Woman (1954). Solstice (1950) incorporated masks, marking a step toward a total theatre concept. With correspondences to Campbell’s work, Erdman frequently highlighted aspects of the monomythic cycle. She continued to integrate dance and theatre with Pierrot the Moon (1954), using mime and props. Both Twenty Poems of e.e. cummings (1950) and Fearful Symmetry (1957) utilized voice.

In early 1955, Erdman toured as a soloist to Japan and India. Audiences deeply appreciated and understood her art; they were enamored with her. Her artistic diplomacy paved the way for other American artists to follow. Erdman was drawn to the transcendent in dance and life. While in the East, she was spiritually stirred to the extent that Joe suggested to his wife: “We should take a kind of Vow of Bodhisattvahood, which will compel us to live in a world of radiance…” (Larsen, S. and R. A Fire in the Mind, 392)

Late in the 1950’s, Erdman conducted tours across the U.S. while maintaining a school in New York City. Her dream-like dances reflected the influences of places and friends throughout the years, from the Swiss Eranos conferences, caves of France, and Native American pueblos to theories of Carl Jung, experimental filmmaking of Maya Deren, and Zen masters Daisetz Suzuki and Alan Watts. The “River Erdman” swirled these philosophies within the intricacies of her mind. Using the entire range of human movement possibilities, she aimed her work to an aesthetic end. With her life and work, Erdman demonstrated a proto-feminist stance, showing us a new mythology for the modern times. 

Erdman remained a dramatic artist of exquisite beauty and brilliant virtuosity throughout the 1960s. Receiving critical acclaim, Coach of the Six Insides twice toured the major cities of the world. Subsequently, she and Campbell founded the experimental Theatre of the Open Eye, encouraging others to be creative. Through the remaining years, Erdman continued to produce shows, including reconstructions of earlier dances. 

Upon the passing of her husband, Erdman served as founding president of the Joseph Campbell Foundation. With a Joycean twist in the final stages of her life, the fluid and feminine “River Erdman” made its final course to the sea, circulating back to her homeland, where she lived out her days near the source of the Punahou spring.


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